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Can living a simpler, smaller and slower life make us happier? Yes, say some lifestyle experts. Downscaling, they say, will also give us more time, greater satisfaction and a better, safer quality of life. Some experts also say a personal simplicity movement could have an impact on culture and society at large.
Wanda Urbanska hosted a TV show about her philosophy
Living simply is much more than a way to save money. It's about creating a life you love, one that brings you joy and peace of mind, Wanda Urbanska says. Urbanska is a simplicity and sustainability advocate who produces and hosts a television series that promotes her philosophy.
"The Simple Living television series was the first nationally syndicated public television series in America devoted to advocating simple living," she says. "We had four seasons of the series. [In] that series, we were advocating simplicity from four perspectives; environmental stewardship, thoughtful consumption, community involvement and financial responsibility, and we talked about the interlinking of those four," she says.
In Swedish 'lagom' means enough
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Urbanska shares her views and experiences in a new book, Less is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness. It is a collection of essays written by a group of leading thinkers on sustainability. Each of them, she says, looks at simplicity from a different perspective.
"We have around 24 authors," she says. "Duane Elgin wrote one of the early essays. He is looking at voluntary simplicity, saying that some people come to simplicity from a justice and equality point of view - the fact that there is so much disparity around the world. Others come at it from an environmental perspective. Juliet Schor wrote about down-shifting to a carbon friendly economy. Bill McKibben talked about a 'mature' economy. There is another gentleman named Alan Atkisson who is an American who met a Swedish woman and moved to Sweden, and he wrote an essay called the 'lagom solution.' In Swedish there is a word called 'lagom' and it means just enough. So his challenge to Americans and other readers is determining what is enough in your life."
Science, religion and simplicity
Others, she adds, took a scientific approach.
"These wonderful authors, Tim Kasser and Kirk Warren Brown, were talking about the studies they have done that link happiness to accumulation and a materialistic orientation," she says. "It turns out that if you are materialistically oriented, you are a less happy and [less] fulfilled person. You are less likely to do things altruistically for others. Even say, at a middle school level, if you are more money-oriented, you are less likely to turn off the lights when you leave a classroom, because you are not thinking about the common good, you're only concerned about getting more for yourself," says Urbanska.
Throughout history, Urbanska points out, mainstream religions and wisdom traditions have understood the importance of living a simple life, and that perspective is also part of Less is More.
"We have some religious leaders who have contributed to the anthology," she says, "including Reverend Canon Sally Bingham who has started a wonderful organization, Power and Light, in San Francisco, as well as Mathew Sleeth who is an evangelical Christian who has come into the Save the Earth movement," Urbanska adds.
What's the economy for, anyway?
John de Graaf, the national coordinator of the Take Back Your Time Campaign, is an advocate for shorter working hours. His contribution to the anthology is an essay titled, What's the Economy For, Anyway?
"We've had such a focus in this country on growth and the gross domestic product and on producing and consuming things as rapidly as possible, that I think we've ignored the impact that that's had on, particularly, our health, the effect it's had on our relationships and connections with family, the effect it's had on things like crime and incarceration, the effect that it's certainly had on the environment," Graff says.
"So we need new indicators to measure how well we're doing in terms of social relations, in terms of decline in crime and incarceration, how well we're doing in terms of reducing air and water pollution, conserving resources. We need to carefully create new measurements to tell us if the economy is actually giving us what we want," he adds.
Finding beauty in imperfect things
The path toward a simpler life can be smoothed by 'Wabi-sabi', as described by Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor-in-chief of Natural Home magazine.
"Wabi-sabi is basically the Japanese art of finding beauty in things that are imperfect and rustic and aged," Lawrence says. "So it's really a kind of acceptance of things as they are, as they seem. And also letting go of perfection, which I think takes resonance in our culture because we tend to have such a striving in our culture for everything being new and sleek and the latest and perfect and all of that. So Wabi-sabi is basically a philosophy that says you need to let go all that, and you can bring more balance into your life by not always having to choose perfection. It goes back to the 15th century Japan and what I really like about Wabi-sabi is that you can take that and just apply it to modern American culture," she says.
De-cluttering at home is a good first step
And, Lawrence says, small steps that start at home can make a big difference.
"It's as simple as un-cluttering your environment," she says. "Every year, at least once a year, we have initiatives focusing on un-cluttering and how to get rid of stuff. We all just collect stuff and don't know how it's affecting us mentally. When you look around your house, you almost stop seeing it. So just taking that aspect and getting rid of stuff you don't need and giving it to people who could use it is an easy, perfect first step," Lawrence adds.
With a downturn in the U.S. economy, Urbanska, who co-edited Less is More, sees an incentive for more people to join the movement.
"We're moving in the United States to smaller houses," she says. "For the first time in decades, people are saving money more quickly. We're getting more involved in local food, trying to re-localize our food supply and take it away from the globalizing forces that have been at play for so long. And I think people are simply choosing smaller vehicles. In America, the SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) is dead," she adds.
Urbanska hopes Less is More gives people ideas and tools that will help them simplify their lives. And she predicts the sustainable simplicity movement will continue to grow in America and around the world.